Proper Cantonese pronunciation

Proper Cantonese pronunciation
Jyutping is used as the pronunciation guide in this article

From the 1980s onwards, the proper Cantonese pronunciation has been much promoted in Hong Kong, with the scholar Richard Ho Man Wui as the iconic campaigner. The very idea of "proper" pronunciation of Cantonese is controversial, as there is no such a thing as "mispronunciation" in descriptive linguistics.


Origins and influences

The promotion of "proper" Cantonese pronunciation is partly a reaction to the so-called "lazy sound" (懶音 laan5 jam1) adopted by the younger generations. The "lazy" pronunciations, or sound changes include:

  • merge of initial n- and l-, for example, reading 男 (naam4) as 藍 (laam4)
  • merge of initial ng- and dark-toned null/glottal onsets, for example, reading 愛 (oi3) as ngoi3
  • loss of initial ng- on light-toned words, for example, reading 我 (ngo5) as o5
  • omission of the labialisation -w- of gw- or kw-, for example, reading 國 (gwok3) as 角 (gok3)
  • confusing the final consonants -k and -t, for example, reading 塞 (sak1) as sat1.
  • confusing the final consonants -n and -ng, for example, reading 冷 (laang5) as 懶 (laan5)
  • confusing the vowelized consonants m and ng, for example, reading 吳 (ng4) as 唔 (m)

TV and radio programs, including game shows, have been made to promote the proper pronunciation. The campaign has also influenced the local media. Some news reporters and masters of ceremonies in Hong Kong have adopted the "proper" pronunciations.


The "proper" readings promoted by Richard Ho are based on the fanqie spelling of Guangyun, an ancient rime dictionary reflecting the sounds of Middle Chinese. Ho holds that, Cantonese phonology being the descendant of the Guangyun system, there are highly regular correspondences between the sounds of Middle Chinese and those of Cantonese. He also holds that the "flat" (平) and "sharp" (仄) tonal distinction in Middle Chinese is the most important feature from which Cantonese should not deviate, especially when reciting ancient literature (Ho 1995:151). He allows exceptions in some cases of colloquial speech, but not in any cases in reading ancient literature (ibid. 152).

Ho's approach to pronunciation is prescriptive. For instance, talking about the "wrong" pronunciation of final consonants of the youth, he says:

In general, today's youth pronounce the final consonants in the wrong way because they have since childhood imitated unconsciously the wrong pronunciations of the broadcasters and artists, and those of their seniors and friends. Fortunately, there are still some families who insist on proper pronunciation. Therefore, the wrong pronunciations have not spreaded (sic) to the whole society, and there is still a ray of hope to right the wrongs. (現在,一般年輕人錯誤的韻尾發音,主要是從小不自覺模仿播音員、藝員、長輩或朋輩的錯誤發音所造成的。幸好有些家庭堅守發音要正確的原則,這種錯誤發音才不至於擴散到整個社會,使撥亂反正仍有一線希望。) (Ho 2001:33)

He expresses his attitude towards sound changes, when talking about the gradual merge of [n-] and [l-] initials in Cantonese:

Regarding sound changes, we can study them objectively. When the changes are fixed, there is no need to restore them. Now if [n-] and [l-] have already merged, there is nothing we can do about it. But the fact is [n-] has yet to disappear in Cantonese. More and more people are pronouncing [n-] as [l-] only because of the bad influences of some language teachers and broadcasters, who inadvertently made the mistake. We still can, and should, correct the error. (我們研究語音的變化,可以客觀地研究變化的現象。變化定了,也無須刻意去回復舊觀。所以,如果現在粵音[n-]已和[l-]相混,那也沒辦法。但目前情況卻非如此,[n-]在粵音中並未消失。越來越多人所以把[n-]讀成[l-],只不過是一些把[n-]讀成[l-]的語文教師和廣播員無意中造成的不良影響而已。現在要改正過來是絕對可以的,也是我們應該盡力去做的。) (Ho 1995:154-155)

A major critic of Ho's approach is Wang Tingzhi (王亭之), pen name of Tan Xiyong (談錫永). He calls Ho's prescriptive pronunciations "demonic". One of his concerns is that Cantonese comprises six historical strata, not just the one represented by the Guangyun. (Wang 2005)

See also


  • Ho Man Wui (1995). Yueyin jiaoxue jishi (粤音敎學紀事 "Records of the career of my Cantonese pronunciation teaching"). Hong Kong: Wu Duotai zhongguo yuwen yanjiu zhongxin.
  • _____(2001). Yueyin zixue tigang (粤音自學提綱 "An outline for the self-study of Cantonese pronunciation"). Hong Kong: Xianggang jiaoyu tushu gongsi.
  • Wang Tingzhi (2005). Qingwu mousha guangdonghua (請勿謀殺廣東話 "Please don't murder Cantonese"). Wen Wei Po, October 21, 2005.

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